June 20, 2019
Yoga Landed in the U.S. Way Earlier Than You'd Think—And Fitness Was Not the PointBreaking News
tags: pop culture, yoga
Philip Deslippe is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to several articles in academic journals, his work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Air & Space Smithsonian, and the Indian news site Scroll.
Every year on June 21, millions of flexible people in an estimated 84 countries around the world observe the International Day of Yoga. Large crowds move through postures together in San Francisco’s Marina Green park and on New Delhi’s Rajpath boulevard to mark the occasion, which was first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.
While yoga has become a mainstream path to wellness among everyday Americans and celebrities alike, the practice was once unheard of in the West. Many have traced the global popularity of yoga back to a key event and critical figure: In 1893, a Hindu monk named Swami Vivekananda addressed a large gathering in Chicago. But Vivekananda’s reception in the West was not always as enthusiastic as some accounts suggest.
Swami Vivekananda was born in 1863 in a well-to-do Calcutta family. As a young man, he became a disciple of the mystic Ramakrishna and took monastic vows shortly before his teacher’s passing. After traveling in India for five years, Vivekananda left India to travel to the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, an interfaith conference held during the massive World's Columbian Exposition.
According to the legend that has grown around Vivekananda’s appearance at the Parliament, despite travel difficulties and nervousness, the swami addressed the crowd as “sisters and brothers of America” to thunderous applause. Vivekananda then rode the wave of success and lectured, wrote books, and opened branches of the Ramakrishna Mission known as Vedanta Societies during two separate U.S. tours.
The approval given to Vivekananda at the Parliament in Chicago was not unique to him, however. In the account of the Parliament published by its president John Henry Barrows, applause was also freely given to the other speakers as part of the self-congratulatory spirit of the Parliament. And Vivekananda did not just receive praise at the Parliament. Barrows also notedthat “very little approval was shown to some of the sentiments expressed” by Vivekananda in his closing address.
Vivekananda’s subsequent lecture tours drew curiosity and interest, but also some hostility. In a letter to one of his American students in 1897, Swami Vivekananda described himself as “a much reviled preacher” in the United States. While he did establish branches of the Vedanta Society on his two trips to America, they were small and often counted only a few dozen members.
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